EMERSON MATHURIN is a FIFA/CONCACAF Referee Instructor and member, CONCACAF Referees' Commission
It was obvious from the moment that Canada's incomparable Sonia Denoncourt whistled to signal the opening kick-off of the Women's World Cup USA'99 (WWC'99) in Giants Stadium, to the time when Switzerland's super-fit Nicole Moudi-Petignat signalled the end of what almost every soccer fan has described as a very successful women's tournament, that FIFA was vindicated in its decision to select only female referees and assistant referees to officiate in the 3rd Women's World Cup.
Mind you, as is the case in every FIFA tournament, there has been the odd criticism of the manner in which some of the referees handled certain game situations. Yet, very few of the critics have ventured to say, as in the Men's World Cups, that a particular action by a referee affected the result of a game in WWC'99! Since the consensus is that the referees and assistant referees contributed significantly to the success of WWC'99, it seems useful to examine in a general way what exactly these match officials did to deserve the praises that have been showered upon them.
For the referees, the examination that follows covers three elements of match control, namely, Positioning and Movement, Application of the Laws, and Dealing with Misconduct, whereas the performance of the assistant referees is examined under the rubric of linesmanship, including such elements as Personality, Fitness, Mobility and Positioning, Signals, Man-management, and Overall Co-operation with the Referee.
Positioning and Movement
All sixteen WWC'99 referees met the requirements of the FIFA Physical Fitness Tests for women referees. The results were gratifying to the members of the Referees' Committee who knew very well that there is an inextricable link between fitness and positioning and movement of a referee. Some of the referees posted excellent times in the 50m dash and 200m run, and almost half of them were able to jog at least 2,700m in twelve minutes, which, of course, is the FIFA standard for male referees. Interestingly, none of them was able to meet the FIFA physical fitness requirements for male referees. Physiologically, that ought to have been expected.
How, then, did the WWC'99 referees use their fitness? For those of us who were appointed as referee inspectors, it was clear that most of them were match-fit, in the sense that they were almost always near the play in dynamic situations. In fact, one or two at times got too close to the play, thereby interfering with it, and on the rare occasion the odd referee enthusiastically ran ahead of the play, thus affecting her ability to maintain constant eye contact with her assistant in the attacking or "danger zone." It was noticeable, though, that the more experienced referees, especially those from countries where women's soccer is well-developed and/or those who frequently referee men's games at a relatively high level, had little problem positioning themselves where they had the best view of the play and, at the same time, keeping the ball between themselves and their assistants in the attacking zone. Several of the referees never hesitated to move into the penalty area, often near the goal line, whenever it was necessary to do so. Then, again, forgetting that "presence lends conviction", far too many eschewed movement into the penalty area, electing to come to an abrupt halt at the edge of the area to view play within it.
With the knowledge that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, most of the referees moved sensibly during breakaways in an attempt to obtain the optimum position in relation to both play and the assistant referee. On these occasions, they instinctively moved away from their diagonal, and then used their high degree of physical fitness to catch up with play before veering towards the diagonal. A pity that in similar circumstances all of them did not follow this pattern of movement, instead of clinging slavishly to the diagonal!
The result was that they were often 30 to 40 metres away from the play, from which position it became difficult to judge fair and unfair challenges.
Most of the referees took up sensible positions at "set plays". On free kicks near goal, however, too often was there no match official on the goal line, acting as a goal judge in anticipation of a direct hard shot on goal.
Application of the Laws
Predictably, the experienced referees at WWC'99 stood out with their correct application of the Laws of the Game, although it is fair to say that, overall, the distinction made between major (penal) offences and technical infringements by the cadre of referees was satisfactory. Two matters, however, could hardly be deemed satisfactory. The first concerned the inadequate protection that was sometimes provided to skilful players from unfair, physical tackles that bordered on brutality, notwithstanding FIFA's constant plea to referees to undertake major surgery in excising this cancer from the game. Furthermore, there often was inconsistency by a handful of referees with respect to punitive action against players who resorted to such tackles.
Another aspect of the officiating that was not always satisfactory was the manner in which the Advantage Clause was interpreted and applied. Specifically, it was not always appreciated that advantage has to be real and possible, as distinct from being just potential or presumed, and seldom was an original offence penalised if the anticipated advantage did not ensue at that time. Furthermore, even allowing for the fact that there were not many occasions when it could have been done, never was a referee seen choosing to apply the advantage, and then cautioning the offending player at the first stoppage in play. But then, the playing of the Advantage Clause is the hallmark of the top-class referee, male or female!
A disturbing practice of a minority of referees was their tendency to use the "Play On - Advantage!" sweep-of-the-arms signal to indicate "Nothing happened!" The problem with this practice was that, when the "anticipated advantage" did not materialise, the offending player was not penalised - simply because no offence had been committed in the first place! It may be that women referees have been watching their male counterparts too closely, for this "Nothing happened!" signal is widely and ill-advisedly used in men's soccer.
Finally, it will be observed from the data in Table 1 that actual playing time per game was shorter in WWC'99 than in other FIFA Women's tournaments. There are obviously many causal factors (stoppages in play), including faulty work by the "spotters", for this decrease in playing time in WWC'99. However, to this observer who saw many of the games in Chicago, Boston, Washington and Los Angeles, the decrease was not significantly due to the inability of the referees to apply the Spirit of the Laws. If anything, there always appeared to be a beautiful flow to most games, not because the referees were unable to detect foul play or because they avoided making tough decisions, but mainly because they tended not to be pedantic in applying the Laws of the Game.
Dealing wth Misconduct
Further examination of the data in Table 1 reveals that more cautions per game were issued in WWC'99 than in other previous FIFA Women's Tournaments. There are at least three reasons, or combinations thereof, for this increase in cautions in the women's game, namely:
A number of critics have argued that some of the WWC'99 referees were lenient, and that they could have issued more cautions to players for unsporting behaviour. This may be true. But, it is also true that of the five players dismissed in the tournament, not one was guilty of a second cautionable offence after having received a caution. This would suggest a high degree of man-management skill by the WWC'99 referees. Perhaps, too, FIFA President Sepp Blatter was correct when, in justifying FIFA's decision to select only women match officials for WWC'99, he said that he believed female players would respond much more positively to female, rather than male officials. Incidentally, most of the referees did not appear to be aggressive in issuing cautions, which gives credence to the axiom that it is far better for a referee to speak to, and not at players. Evidently, players cautioned at WWC'99 were made to realize that their future standing depended upon themselves, and not upon the referee.
If it is acknowledged that the job of an assistant referee is to enhance the performance of a referee (or, at least, not to hamper it), then, as a group, the WWC'99 assistant referees performed satisfactorily. For sure, there were a couple of them who were not sufficiently nimble along the touchline, or who failed at times to maintain proper position on the onside/offside line, or who employed unnecessary 'free hand' signals. Most of them, however, looked very comfortable on the touchline, interpreted Law 11 (Offside) wisely, maintained maximum physical activity for a whole game, sprinted whenever the occasion demanded it, and quickly resumed appropriate positions according to the dictates of play.
That they displayed excellent fitness running the lines came as no surprise, for all, but one, were successful in meeting the requirements of the FIFA Physical
Fitness Tests for women assistant referees. The one exception suffered a painful leg injury before she could complete the tests.
Personality-wise, they were always smartly attired, avoided adopting attitudes that made them appear theatrical or arrogant, and left the impression that they were very proud to be part of the Third Team.
The referee assistants at WWC'99 had few opportunities to display their man-management skill during the matches, mainly because there were very few occasions when it was necessary to remind players of the Fair Play Code, and to advise them with regard to encroachment, time-wasting tactics, position of the ball within the corner quadrant, and throw-in and free kick positions. In general, their flag-handling skill was commendable, although one or two tended to point the flag horizontally rather than at a 45-degree angle above the horizontal when giving directional signals, or failed to raise the flag vertically and to its fullest extent to attract the referee's attention.
Above all, every WWC'99 assistant referee appeared to remember at all times that her job was not to enforce the Laws of the Game, but to assist the referee in enforcing them!
FIFA probably took a huge risk in selecting only women referees and assistant referees to officiate in WWC'99. Nevertheless, as a group, these match officials came through with flying colours. Like all match officials, they made some errors. Small errors, mind you, but certainly no graver than we have seen in previous Men's World Cup Tournaments. Women match officials will become better, and this will occur at a very rapid rate as a result of improved training, further development of the women's game in national associations, more opportunities for them to officiate in men's soccer, and more appointments in the major FIFA and Confederation tournaments. Who knows, For the Good of the Game, perhaps by the next Women's World Cup in 2003, women referees and assistant referees will be regarded simply as match officials or as referees and assistant referees, without a gender tag. Let us hope so!
NOTE: Mr. Mathurin was a member of the FIFA delegation (Referees' Committee: Panel of Instructors) to the 3rd FIFA Women's World Cup USA'99. The views expressed in the foregoing are his, and not necessarily those of FIFA.